Originally posted Dec 4th, 2019. Revised and updated June 23rd, 2022.
Plot Summary (Caution Spoilers!):
The year is 2065, and a scientific research vessel is currently tracking dolphins affected by an earthquake in the Pacific Ocean. Dr. Deanne Ambagu and her nurse, Tomas, are examining the belongings of two assumed refugees they found drifting in a rather unusual boat. While both are unconscious, the doctor tries to find clues to the identities and origins of the two individuals. She finds a journal, a religious text, and references to a bizarre calendar so different from her own. In the journal, she finds mention of a pandemic 50 years prior that killed off a large portion of the world’s population. While the world has recovered and moved on, the doctor has a horrific realization: these two people are refugees from somewhere cut off since the pandemic.
Yet, when the strange woman with red hair and tan skin awakens, she is alarmed, surrounded by foreign materials like plastic and cotton. She panics at first. Once calmed, she slowly begins to tell her story of an island with three cities founded by three siblings named Samsara, Chanson, and Rekin Ani. Each sibling founds a city on the island and populates it with the friends they can save from their old home in California. Assuming that the world as they knew it has ended, they set up trade agreements and try to create a way for the world to continue in quarantine.
So why did the two flee? How did they end up where they are? Why are they together? The doctor has so many questions for the young woman as she awakes and reveals her name, Leilani.
Leilani was raised in the city founded by Rekin Ani, her great grandfather. The child of aristocratic parents that died of drowning, her only actual female role model is her space-case grandmother, a former queen. Her twin brother, Irin, is the head of the house by religious and cultural standards. Additionally, since the passing of their parents, he holds a place as a prince of their village and works as a leader, having to fulfill the duties expected of him.
This society has expectations of women as well that are rigid and unforgiving. Her best friend is a servant within her household yearning to change in status and live a more comfortable life – something Leilani promises she will help make possible at any cost, a promise that will lead to her downfall. But she is lucky! Her family and status have blessed her with a job, comfort, and finery that brings her some semblance of joy. Enough so that she is complacent with her situation.
There would be no story if things didn’t change, and so her brother, with her best interests at heart, makes it so. She is surprised to find that she is to change jobs and instead become Elegance, a member of the Queen’s Virtues. The Virtues represent the traits of the Ethereal Queen, the subservient female counterpart of Lehom, the volcano god. While this is beneficial for rank and status, there is something suspicious – Elegance is a position once held by the queen’s sister, and these are positions held for life. Why would the queen dismiss her sister?
So when the former Elegance suddenly shows up dead, and the King begins proposing changes to the government’s structure, a metaphorical and literal earthquake begins to shake things up on this island, putting the lives and safety of everyone in danger. In this incredible work of fiction, Leilani battles cognitive dissonance, finding herself beyond her religion, and discovering a world outside her own.
My Overall Response:
“The Moon Hunters” by Anya Pavelle is the best book I’ve read this year. Pavelle brings together stories within stories, showing the reader contrasting views, multi-dimensional characters, betrayal, forgiveness, and the representation of a grandmother’s love to a degree I have never before seen represented so poignantly in literature.
This book required writing at least 3 or 4 different books that merged into one cohesive story. Readers, this takes time and effort. This is not an easy task. It means that an author plays around in the world to ensure that the reader can too. Between writing the religious texts referenced, the journal entries of various people, the histories, and developing the context for all of this information to be discovered and put together, I’m sure there’s enough information for more books to be written about this island and the other characters mentioned. I would love to read more books about the people of Ani Island, particularly Samsara and Chanson. I have a fairly keen sense that the author has all of that information ready without asking based on the level of detail provided to readers.
One of the beautiful things about how Pavelle structured the story is by contrasting the different cities founded by different siblings. There’s Samsara, the liberal, compassionate, free-thinker whose journal calls her brother, Rekin, out on his crap. There’s Chanson, the mediator, and “middle ground” where the other two siblings’ cities must meet. Then there’s Rekin, the former Hollywood party-kid turned cult leader that has forced men and women into his ideal images of both.
The multi-dimensional characters make the story realistic, and the example I will choose to focus on is Leilani’s brother, Irin. Irin initially comes across as a complete asshole to an American reader. Except, as the story continues, this view changes. We realize behind the scenes that the reader doesn’t get to see Irin at his actual depth and instead sees him falter out of artifice for the benefit of his family and position of power. By the end of the book, I was proud of Irin’s growth and change to genuine expression.
One of the themes of the book is betrayal and forgiveness. What constitutes betrayal, and what deserves forgiveness? When does one let things go? When has someone been punished enough? As a reader, we see this repetition with differing results specific to the antagonist’s circumstances and Leilani’s internal state. This thematic element blesses a reader with reactional emotions such that we escape no consequences.
This is the second book I have reviewed that has made me pause for tears (the first being Then Came Darkness). The particular scene that made me cry was when Leilani’s grandmother reveals to her that she wants Leilani to know she can leave her life and have something else if she wants. She wants Leilani to see that she can have happiness and gives her the gives to secure that happiness. My grandmother did this for me.
I genuinely think this is the best book I’ve read this year and maybe one of the best humanist works I’ve ever read. I cannot recommend this book enough and hope that everyone reading this review purchases a copy.
100%. One of the contrasting foundational elements of this book between societies shows heteronormativity versus complete acceptance of a spectrum of relationships. I would absolutely recommend any LGBTQIA+ reading list.
While I think the writing is otherwise impeccable, the author mentioned she found two errors in the printed version. As a result, I went back into my notes and decided to be nit-picky on the two mistakes I did find for this reason. I did see notes for:
- page 231, where the word “had” is missing.
- page 279, where the word “my” should be the word “I.”
To be clear – this book meets the 1: 10,000-word error editorial standard and the errors are not memorable.
Twilight Zone Moment:
The unanswered questions I have that I wish had been addressed more in the book are what are the stereotyped traits of the founding families, and how did the class structure of the Village of Lehom arise? Perhaps this is something that could better be addressed in prequels if Pavelle so chooses to indulge an eager fan.
Want to Know More About the Author?
To read more about Anya Pavelle, read more of their work, or contact them, you can visit their website or visit their Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. You can purchase the book on Amazon.
Also available from Anya Pavelle: “The Garden of Stone Houses” is available on Amazon.